Becoming A Haven: How Workplaces Can Support Victims Of Domestic Violence - The Handy Guide

Becoming A Haven: How Workplaces Can Support Victims Of Domestic Violence

May 07, 2024

There’s a big issue that often goes unnoticed in the corporate corridors of power – the impact of domestic and family violence on the workplace.

It’s a complex issue that has a significant effect on businesses and employees around the country, but one that is seldom discussed and frequently overlooked. That’s why it’s encouraging to see companies like WorkHaven stepping forward to meet this challenge.

WorkHaven is dedicated to educating organisations about domestic and family violence and sexual harassment, and guiding them to deliver meaningful and effective support in the workplace.

We sat down with WorkHaven’s founder, Jo Mason, who shared her deeply personal journey, from experiencing domestic violence herself to pioneering support initiatives in the workplace for others facing similar struggles.

It’s a story about survival, but it’s also about how we can use our experiences as fuel to create meaningful change.

Jo’s story

Nine years ago, Jo Mason appeared to have the perfect life – she was a marketing director in the construction industry, living in a beautiful home with her partner, a senior professional, and the child they had together.

But behind closed doors, Jo was living with domestic violence. It was a reality unknown to her friends and colleagues – or even, in some ways, herself.

“I didn’t understand domestic and family violence, and so I didn’t realise it was occurring in my world,” she says. “But there was a significant incident at home one Sunday night, and I reached out to a friend. I'd been socially isolated over time, cut off from most of my friends and family, and she was the only person that really knew what was happening.”

Recognising the situation for what it was, Jo’s friend intervened by connecting her with support, propelling her journey towards safety and independence.

“She was a very active bystander,” Jo remembers. “I left the situation four days later.”

After leaving her abusive situation, Jo was fortunate enough to find a new home, which she acknowledges can be difficult for many women leaving domestic violence situations. With safe and secure housing in place, she began to rebuild her life.

But when Jo sought support from her workplace, she found there was nothing available.

“In fact,” she says, “they made things so difficult with their lack of understanding that I actually walked away from my job four weeks after leaving my abusive situation.”

Financially strapped and emotionally depleted, Jo did everything she could to stay afloat.

“I managed to scrape by, renting out spare rooms to overseas students and buying my food from a community supermarket,” she says. “It was an incredibly tough period. Life really came to a grinding halt.”

The birth of WorkHaven

During this time, Jo received support from Brisbane Domestic Violence Service (BDVS). Her involvement there led her to blog about her experiences, eventually joining BDVS’ Resound Voices of Experience advocacy group. Today, Jo proudly serves as their Lead Advocate, working with a team of resilient women who have also faced domestic and family violence.

“Being a part of Resound gave me an opportunity to learn more about domestic violence beyond the lens of my own experience,” she says.

Reflecting on her journey, Jo recognised a significant gap in workplace support for individuals affected by domestic violence.

“Looking back, I realised what an incredible difference it would have made had my workplace lent in with the right support and understanding.”

This realisation planted the seed for WorkHaven. Over the next three years, Jo deepened her understanding and outlined the services that WorkHaven would offer.

Launched during a global pandemic, WorkHaven has since reached approximately 95,000 Australian workers, providing workplaces with essential services and resources to help employers support fellow colleagues facing such adversities.

Why domestic violence is a workplace issue

Given that 60% of women who experience violence are part of the Australian workforce, workplaces play a key role in taking a stand against domestic and family violence.

While some may initially question the relevance of discussing “domestic stuff” at work, Jo outlines five compelling reasons why workplaces must be proactive in this area.

1. We’re people, not robots

The idea that employees can disconnect from personal issues during work hours is unrealistic.

“We are not robots,” Jo says. “Personal issues, particularly domestic and family violence, can infiltrate every aspect of life and can significantly affect work performance – impacting focus, attendance, tenure and quality of work.

“Not only can the workplace provide a lifeline by taking an active approach and supporting people, there will also be less of an impact with regards to productivity – so it’s a win-win for both employee and employer.”

2. Vital support

Workplaces are vital for providing social connections and financial independence – two critical factors for individuals looking to escape abusive situations.

“They can also offer a sense of normalcy and confidence,” Jo says, “which are key elements in someone’s transition from victim to survivor.”

3. Ending stigma

Unfortunately, the stigma around domestic violence still exists. But Jo says open discussions at work can play a huge role in overcoming this.

“We really do need to have these conversations to shine a light on it,” she says. “Nobody experiencing violence should ever feel ashamed or embarrassed to step forward for support.”

Jo notes that this can also lead to broader conversations about sensitive issues like mental health and substance abuse.

“We often find people coming forward to talk about other things that they are struggling with. It really does create a more supportive and understanding workplace environment where employees feel valued and supported.”

4. Economic cost and benefits

Addressing domestic violence not only supports the individual, but also benefits the workplace economically.

Jo references a 2015 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers Australia (PWC), ‘A high price to pay’, which estimated that the monetary costs of domestic violence run into the billions.

“We know there is an economic cost,” she says, “but if a workplace leans in to have that really important conversation and backs it up with decent support, it helps someone navigate through and beyond domestic violence more swiftly and smoothly. This is then likely to have a positive outcome for the workplace and its productivity as well.

“So it has an economic benefit and, most importantly, it’s the right thing to do.”

5. Legislative backing

Finally, and importantly, in 2023 paid domestic and family violence leave became a legislated requirement for all Australian workers.

“Not only does this leave provide an important support option for people who are experiencing violence, but it also reiterates the need for workplaces to lean in and take a committed approach to this important topic,” says Jo.

Making an impact

WorkHaven is committed to developing a culture of zero tolerance towards domestic and family violence and sexual harassment – and they believe this culture can start in the workplace.

“We provide essential resources such as policy development, training, safety assessments and supportive communications for both leaders and employees,” Jo explains.

WorkHaven’s initiatives go beyond typical training programs, offering specialised support for mental health first aid officers and comprehensive resources developed in partnership with key industry bodies.

“We ensure workplaces have the right resources in place,” Jo says, “whether it’s crafting content for the company intranet, or designing programs to assist victim-survivors who are rebuilding their lives after escaping unsafe environments.”

Thanks to their impactful work, WorkHaven has received funding from the Queensland Government to further expand their domestic violence recovery program.

“I’m incredibly proud to secure this funding,” Jo says. “We have also been proud to work on a range of other projects, including research into the needs of vulnerable women living in rural and remote areas, and the development of the DV Action Plan for Hope Vale Aboriginal Shire Council.”

Recognising the signs of domestic violence at work

While people will often do whatever they can to hide the warning signs of domestic and family violence due to the shame and stigma that still surrounds it, Jo says there are some indicators that colleagues can look for.

  • Irregular attendance or changes to someone’s work routine: This might signal disruptions in their personal life.
  • Decreased productivity or changes in work quality: These could be signs that a colleague is distracted or stressed by issues at home.
  • Physical injuries: Bruises or other injuries might be visible, despite attempts to cover them up.
  • Withdrawal from team activities: Someone who is usually a team player might become more isolated.
  • Reluctance to discuss personal life: This could indicate discomfort or fear related to their home situation.
  • Financial difficulties: Signs might include discussions about tight finances or an unusual focus on money.
  • Changes to a person’s mood: Someone may change their behaviour due to the duress of the situation at home.

Starting the conversation

When it comes to addressing these signs, Jo emphasises the importance of sensitivity.

“Approach the situation gently and with kindness,” she says. “It’s not about jumping in and talking about domestic violence – that could be quite jarring or triggering for a person.”

Jo says it’s important to understand that a person experiencing violence might not give a full disclosure in the first conversation, and that they might start by sharing a little at first to build trust”.

“It is very important to respect a person’s privacy and keep information confidential, to listen deeply, and understand the person’s needs and feelings without judgment.”

How workplaces can become safe havens for everyone

For supporters

If you find yourself in a position where you can support someone experiencing domestic and family violence, Jo says initiating a conversation can make a big difference – “just remember to do so with the utmost respect and empathy.”

  • Educate yourself: Learn more about domestic violence to understand the complexities and nuances of the issue.
  • Provide connections to support: Rather than trying to solve the problem yourself, act as a link to professional help, whether through workplace resources like an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or external services like 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732.
  • To search for more services near you, consult The Handy Guide’s online listings for Queensland women in need.

“It’s also vital to seek guidance and support for yourself to handle the situation responsibly and empathetically. It can be difficult to support someone who is experiencing domestic violence, so please make sure you seek support if you need it”, Jo says.

For people experiencing domestic and family violence

If you are in immediate danger or at risk of harm, call Triple Zero (000).

If you are experiencing domestic and family violence, reach out to specialist support services equipped to help you navigate your situation safely, such as your company’s EAP, 1800 RESPECT, or one of the many services listed on The Handy Guide online.

For workplaces

Organisations looking to make a real difference should:

  • Evaluate and act: Review your current policies, training practices and communications activities in relation to domestic and family violence. Assess whether your approach is committed and proactive.
  • Seek guidance: If you’re unsure where to start, consider consulting experts who specialise in integrating domestic violence support into workplace policies. WorkHaven offers guidance and can help you develop effective strategies and resources. For more information, visit WorkHaven’s website.

“After all,” Jo says, “a workplace has a legislated requirement to address domestic and family violence, and plays such an important role in supporting a person to navigate through and beyond this difficult and sensitive situation.”